Double Suicide Echoes Heiress Family's Grief

When Anne Morell Petrillo jumped to her death this week from New York's Tappan Zee Bridge -- the same location where her stepfather took his life 15 years ago -- she sent a strong signal about the grief that drove her to despair.

On New Year's Eve in 1994, Petrillo's stepfather Scott Douglas threw himself into the waters of the Hudson River just north of New York City hours after police say he murdered Petrillo's mother, newspaper heiress Anne Scripps Douglas, with a claw hammer.

Both Scott Douglas and Petrillo were 38 at their deaths and before they jumped, both parked BMW's on the mile-long bridge that takes 135,000 vehicles a day from Tarrytown, N.Y., to New Jersey and beyond.

"I am not a psychiatrist, but I think she was saying that her life stopped then and there," television's Judge Jeanine Pirro told

"The message was loud and clear," said Pirro, who was Westchester County District Attorney at the time of the murder and recalls arriving at the crime scene early New Year's Day and seeing Douglas battered with her terrier puppy curled up next to her on bloodied sheets.

The horrific crime was the subject of a 1997 TV movie, "Our Mother's Murder."

No one will ever know why Petrillo decided to reenact her stepfather's suicide, but an acute grief -- one that was insurmountable -- surely played a part, say family and friends.

Petrillo may have been one of an estimated 15 percent of those who suffer from what psychiatrists call "complicated grief" after the death of a loved one. And suicide is a risk factor.

The grief is so severe, it can "wreck a person's life," according to Katherine Shear, the Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry Columbia University School of Social Work and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.

"I do think it's reasonably likely she suffered from complicated grief," said Shear of Petrillo. "We do know that it's a pretty good indicator that people who have complicated grief think about suicide more."

In recreating her stepfather's suicide, Petrillo may have been telling the world, "You killed me as well as her," speculated Shear, who did not know or treat Petrillo.

Complicated grief or "prolonged grief disorder" is currently under consideration to be added to the DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association's handbook for diagnosing mental disorders.

Complicated Grief Destroys Lives, Say Experts

This extreme grief causes a "loop of suffering," Shear told, which is similar to what friends and family say was a "perpetual replay" that Petrillo experienced after her mother's murder.

"She was very depressed. [The murder] did have a big impact on her," her paternal aunt, Mary Jane Haggerty, told the New York Daily News. "It was a lifetime of sadness."

"Her mother's murder haunted her until the end," said a friend of Petrillo's older sister, Wendy Rottman.

"She was just devastated, and this was the way she wanted it," Rottman told The New York Times. "She's at peace now."

"She never recovered from the loss of her mother," said Shelley Goldring Silverman, a neighbor of Petrillo in Rye Brook.

Petrillo had also grieved the death of her father four years ago and her paternal uncle at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Her mother was the great-great granddaughter of James E. Scripps, who founded The Detroit News and built the Evening News Association, which was sold to the Gannett Co. in 1985. His brother E.W. Scripps founded Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co., which owns newspapers, television stations and the Scripps Howard News Service.

At the time of the murder Petrillo was just 22. Her 3-year-old sister Victoria was in the house as her stepfather beat her 47-year-old mother into the coma that six days later killer her.

"In tearful confusion, [Victoria] said daddy was giving mommy many 'bad boo boos,' according to Pirro, a lifelong advocate for abused women. "'Daddy painted mommy red, why make mommy a monster?'"

Before her death, Petrillo's mother had gone to Westchester Family Court to get an order of protection against her husband, but was turned away because the judge was on vacation.

Scott Douglas's body was found three months later downstream in the Bronx, she said. "The irony was his watch had stopped at exactly midnight on New Year's Eve."

"The whole thing is horrific and the irony is stunning," said Pirro. "It's the cycle of violence and continuing tragedy and the ripple effect. Long after everybody stopped talking about it, it was never over in the family," she said.

Later, Petrillo and her older sister were devastated by losing a bid to take custody of Victoria. Petrillo was further traumatized when they lost a lawsuit, charging the state failed to protect their mother.

"Virtually everyone who develops this kind of grief has a close relationship with the person who died," said Shear.

Acute Grief Beyond 6 Months is Not Normal

When grief lasts six months beyond a death, psychiatrists consider complicated grief, which has been linked to higher incidences of drinking, cancer and suicide attempts.

In depression, a person is "sad and uninterested in everything," according to Shear. "They don't yearn and long for things -- they don't care."

In post-traumatic stress syndrome, which might well have played a role in Petrillo's sadness, "You are focused on the event, as opposed to the person," she said.

But in complicated grief, patients "relive it over and over and cannot stop," said Shear. "It's not going anywhere. That's where you get the constellation of symptoms and it's the center of the intense longing for the person. At the same time, they are avoiding the painful parts."

Normal grief, being preoccupied with thinking how much the person will be missed, is processed over time.

"You start to think, I can manage, I don't know how but I will. And gradually over time, you are really rehearsing for the fact that the person is not there," she said.

Ultimately, the bereaved learns the loved one is gone.

"Petrillo might think of her stepfather and how could he could have done this and it never should have happened, instead of understanding she [her mother] is gone and I have to make the best of it," Shear said. "It becomes the focus of attention, rather than the death itself."

"The mind takes over and starts imagining how it didn't have to happen, instead of how it happened," she said.

Shear has developed cognitive behavioral therapy that requires the patient to relive the death, talking about it in detail on tape and replaying it at home.

In a 2005 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Shear presented evidence that this treatment is twice as effective as traditional therapy.

One of her patients, a New York City real estate broker, lost her only child in 2002. Then a 26-year-old MBA student in France, Jeremy was killed in a car accident.

Iris, who did not want her name used, said the therapy was "phenomenal" and helped save her life.

"You never get over it, but you can be with yourself again," she said.

At first after Jeremy's death, Iris was in shock. "It's the shock that helps you," she said. But then, as it wore off, "I was in such horrible pain aching for him."

Now, after 16 weeks of reliving the death and recording her feelings, Iris said the memory of her son "is always with me, but the realization that he is not on this earth is apparent now."

"I look at things differently now," she said. "I am able to feel blessed that he was in my life and I was his mother. I couldn't feel that before."

But now, as Petrillo's own 13-year-old son and two sisters mourn her death, they too, face a great loss, according to Peter Goodrich, a family friend and lawyer. "They love their sister."

"They don't need any more publicity," he told on Wednesday, the day of her wake. "It's hurtful every time."